After the Rain (两个星球, Fan Jian, 2021)

When the Great Sichuan Earthquake struck in 2008, 69,000 people lost their lives while a catastrophic blow was dealt to local infrastructure. With the One Child Policy then still strictly enforced, parents who had lost children in the disaster were offered government assistance in order to conceive a second child. It might be crass to describe these children as “replacements”, yet in one sense that is what they were intended to be. Jian Fan’s observational documentary After the Rain (两个星球, liǎng gè xīngqiú) follows two such children and their traumatised parents as they try to move on as a family in the wake of tragedy. 

Sheng is still haunted by his inability to rescue his daughter, Rain, from beneath the rubble of her school house. He and his wife Mei have decided to take part in the IVF programme and are hoping for a girl, believing in a sense that they’d be getting their daughter back. IVF doesn’t work out for them, but Mei conceives naturally a few months later and gives birth to a baby boy, Chuan. On what should be an unambiguously happy occasion, the sense of disappointment is palpable, Sheng in particular feeling cheated and resentful to have been denied a reunion with his daughter. Ying and her husband, meanwhile, are also unsuccessful with IVF but are simultaneously struggling to rebuild a relationship with their second daughter, Ranran, for whom they had to pay the second child fine subsequently sending her to stay with relatives in the countryside before bringing her back when their eldest girl, also called Rain, was killed in the earthquake. 

Both children are over burdened with the knowledge that they owe their existence to their sibling’s death, Mei bluntly telling Chuan that Rain’s life was sacrificed for his while later revealing that she sometimes dressed him as a girl as an infant while Ranran is forced to reckon with her parents’ decision to send her away only to be recalled when her sister died. At a memorial event other mothers discuss what they’ve told the children they conceived after the earthquake about their older siblings with most disapproving of Mei’s blunt approach fearing that such knowledge will burden their children or leave them feeling guilty and unloved but Mei is unrepentant. After all it is in a sense the truth. Because of the One Child Policy, the existence of these children would not have been possible had their elder sibling not have died in a such a horrifying way. 

Even so, Sheng in particular struggles to bond with his son catching himself letting it slip out that he wasn’t allowed to spend time with his daughter so he’s little interest in doing so with Chuan refusing to take him out to an amusement park harping on about how wasteful Chuan is and how much money he’s costing him. He constantly runs the boy down, criticising his performance at a school sports day and snapping at him at home with the obvious consequence that Chuan mainly ignores him and stays close to his mother though she is also at times unsympathetic, angry with him for crying while in pain after a medical procedure. 

A heartbreaking sequence sees little Chuan all alone and looking lost amid the graves at a memorial event for the earthquake while his parents talk with others in the same position, as if for a minute they’d forgotten he existed. Trapped in grief, Sheng still lovingly washes one of his daughter’s dolls on the rooftop and seems at times torn and remorseful complaining that it made him feel sad inside to notice there was no light in Chuan’s eyes but still harbouring resentment towards him as if blaming his son for “replacing” his daughter. Ying meanwhile recounts all the ways Ranran is different from Rain as if the differences sometimes upset her even if she is in a sense closer to her than she had been to her older daughter leaving her with an additional sense of guilt. 

“Losing a kid leaves your heart empty” Ranran’s grandma remarks each of the parents still struggling to come to terms with their loss while the children equally struggle to accept the absence of an older sibling they never knew of whose loss they are constantly reminded and expected to mourn. Nevertheless they are all doing their best trying to move past their grief and rebuild their lives but ultimately unable to let go of the traumatic past while their children grow away from them left with only loneliness and resentment. 


After the Rain screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 25 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Big Night! (Jun Robles Lana, 2021)

In the opening scenes of Jun Robles Lana’s darkly comic farce Big Night! a young man is shot in the head by another young man, this one wearing a motorcycle helmet with its visor down, who calmly walks away and gets back on the back of the bike he arrived on his friend then driving them both away. Of course people are shocked but then again not all that much, they barely pause despite the fact that his man, Ronron, was well known to them and no one really thought he had much to do with drugs. Beautician Dharna (Christian Bables) gossips about the killing with his friend Biba but gives it little thought before returning to his day, so normalised has death on the streets become in Duterte’s Philippines. 

Dharna may not have given much thought to extrajudicial killings, but then it’s different when it’s you who might be next in the firing line as he discovers when Biba gets an advance view of the following day’s “Watch List” from her law enforcement boyfriend. What ensues is a kafkaesque quest to clear his name though there’s no real “official” path towards getting off a watch list when you’re on one. His boyfriend Zeus who is due to perform in a “Big Night” pageant at a local gay bar that very night suggests simply fleeing to another district, but flight implies guilt and as Dharna points out he’ll lose all his customers if he has to move to another area and neither of them have the money to start all over again somewhere new. Like many of Dharna’s friends and acquaintances Zeus doesn’t seem to share his concern. “The police won’t bother you if you’re not doing anything illegal” he naively advises, sure it’s all just a random mistake that soon will blow over but otherwise so numbed to the idea of extrajudicial killing that he doesn’t really think too much of it and is mainly annoyed that Dharna has lost interest in helping finish his costume for the big show. 

Neither of them can think of a reason why Dharna, under his full legal name, would have been placed on a list as he’s not a drug user and doesn’t know anyone who is. He does, however, have some useful connections including local law enforcement official Cynthia who isn’t terribly interested or helpful but manipulates his anxiety to force him to help her out by filling in for her regular mortician, Connie, who has mysteriously not shown up for work. The morgue is currently overflowing, Cynthia making a dark joke that undertaking is a growth industry while revealing that there are so many bodies in part because families have to pay a fee to get them back and most of those involved in extrajudicial killings are from the slums so they can’t afford it. Even so, she explains to Dharna that they get more donations when families can see the body which is why he’s supposed to make them up to look as good as they can despite many of them having sustained gunshot wounds to the head or face. 

Cynthia sends him on to local community leader Roja warning him that he’s “allergic to gays” while he too makes Dharna do his bidding pointlessly walking laps around a fountain in some sort of macho display of endurance while insisting that he’s so anti-drug that even if he gets a stomach upset he just powers through it with raw masculine energy. He too is a self-interested hypocrite spouting religious nonsense while hanging out in “massage parlours”, dangling the idea of salvation but unprepared to grant it. Dharna wonders if it might have been someone from the area where he grew up who reported him but discovers that unlicensed midwife Melba (Janice De Belen) makes a point of not putting any names forward at all and is herself willing to risk breaking the law to help women in need who are denied medical treatment because of their poverty.

It’s impossible to avoid the implication that this is happening to Dharna in part because he’s poor and powerless in an authoritarian and hierarchal society but he’s eventually forced to consider that someone may have put his name in a drop box anonymously, that perhaps they gave a random name when someone asked for one to save their own, because they had something against him, or sought to profit in some way from his absence. Like the witch trials of old, the war against drugs is another tool that can be manipulated for personal gain and so inured to violence has the society become that many are prepared to use it. Dharna finds himself at the centre of a random conspiracy in which he has no other option than to accept his complicity or die, discovering that as the radio report that opened the film had suggested the same officials in charge of prosecuting the war on drugs are in fact secretly using it to secure their stranglehold over the local drugs trade. 

Dharna finds himself compromised at every turn, beginning by offering free haircuts to help his case to progressing to covering up state crime, literally, by repairing the faces of the dead and graduating to faking a seizure in an ambulance to bypass a checkpoint. At the hospital he is confronted by the face of an old lady filled with despair one hand holding that of a little girl and the other a pair of bloody sandals before she simply collapses. Dharna tries to wash the sandals clean but there’s only so much you can do when the stain runs so deep. The irony of his big night taking place on All Souls Day is not lost though there’s precious little time for honouring the dead when your survival can no longer be assured. 


Big Night screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 23/27 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nothing Serious (연애 빠진 로맨스, Jeong Ga-young, 2021)

Through her first three features in which she also played the lead, Jeong Ga-young had established herself as a provocative indie voice casting herself as an often unsympathetic if transgressively frank heroine contending with the vagaries of the modern society. Nothing Serious (연애 빠진 로맨스, Yeonae Bbajin Romance), by contrast, marks her debut as a commercial film director and perhaps softens some of her harsher edges but nevertheless maintains her characteristic saltiness and often witty dialogue in what is otherwise closer to Nora Ephron than Hong Sang-soo. 

Though played by Jeon Jong-seo rather than the director herself, 29-year-old Ja-young is a classic Jeong heroine transgressively frank in terms of her sexuality and finding herself in something of a tailspin as she approaches her 30th birthday as a single young woman drowning in debt with neither career nor relationship success to boast of. Meanwhile across town nerdy magazine staff writer Woo-ri (Son Suk-ku) finds himself having to write almost all of the magazine himself in part he suspects as punishment for having helped a friend leave to start up their own online publication. His particular problem is that his boss has asked him to take over his friend’s sex column which is really not his thing especially as he’s in an on again off again non-relationship with colleague Yeon-hee (Lim Sun-woo) who has just informed him she’s getting engaged to her old boyfriend. 

Inevitably the pair end up meeting through dating app Love Bridge to begin with just for a no strings New Year one night stand only to inconveniently realise they quite like each. Even so, their personal issues continue to overshadow the relationship, those being Ja-young’s hurt and anxiety on hearing that an old boyfriend who treated her badly and broke her heart is getting married, and the fact Woori signed up to Love Bridge mainly to find inspiration for his column which becomes an unexpected hit with readers who prefer the slow-burn tease of their romance to the X-rated content of Woo-ri’s predecessor. 

While not really “dating” the couple continue to share their relationship woes with each other, Ja-young continually fed up with her attempts to meet “normal” men who don’t invite their mother on dates, turn out to be married, or are just plain odd. Her previous boyfriend branded her an insanely jealous “alcoholic nymphomaniac” while she simply tells it like it is as a sexually liberated young woman who refuses to feel ashamed for feeling desire but is also in her own way lonely and looking for companionship as perhaps is Woo-ri while conflicted in his betrayal of her even if he is careful not to use any identifying details in his column. 

Along with their romantic woes, the pair also share a sense of hopelessness about the future, Woo-ri disappointed in himself for his lack of success as a serious writer and Ja-young staking her hopes on a career in podcasting after being forced to leave a job at a radio station because of the awkwardness between herself and a colleague she’d previously dated. Interviewing her grandmother and a series of other women she fears were denied the right to become the protagonist of their own lives, always someone’s wife or mother looking after children or in-laws, she wonders if she’s managed it herself or if things are really as different now as she had thought them to be while she continues to struggle drowning in debt and loneliness with very little hope for the future. 

Jeong’s prognosis is, however, a little more hopeful than in her previous films Ja-young and Woo-ri each flawed but basically good falling in love despite themselves only to see their connection undermined by its superficial inauthenticity. If nowhere near as caustic, she retains her sense of playfulness, even throwing in a reference to her first film Bitch on the Beach not to mention the tiny animated heads emerging from the pair’s phones, through sophisticated dialogue instantly capturing a sense of the everyday life of the average 20-something in the contemporary society longing to overcome their sense of cynicism and believe in a genuine romantic connection. Strangely charming in its breeziness, Jeong’s commercial debut loses none of her wit but gains a little in warmth as these crazy kids learn to put their anxieties aside and give love a chance even if it turns out to be nothing serious after all. 


Nothing Serious screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 23 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Maika: The Girl From Another Galaxy (Cô Bé Đến Từ Hành Tinh Khác, Ham Tran, 2022)

A small boy struggling to come to terms with loss learns to find accommodation with grief while helping a marooned extraterrestrial get back to her people in the delightful Vietnamese family film, Maika: The Girl From Another Galaxy (Cô Bé Đến Từ Hành Tinh Khác). A classic kids’ adventure movie, Ham Tran’s zany tale finds its young hero not only trying to reorient himself in a world of constant change but also attempting to process the wider sources of societal destabilisation such as rapid gentrification and shady billionaire scientists with dubious ambitions. 

Eight-year-old Hung lost his mother to illness a year or so ago and is now living alone with his father Thanh who is forced to work long hours in his shop fixing mobile phones in order to clear the family’s mounting debts. Not only are they being constantly hounded by a pair of thugs working for a local gangster with a thing for Japan who wants to evict all the tenants so he can sell their building to developers to build more luxury apartments, but his best friend is moving to Saigon and his already busy dad seems to have become awfully friendly with pretty neighbour Miss Trang. When his father breaks a promise to watch a meteor storm with him, Hung goes out on his own and witnesses a strange sight which he later learns to be a UFO crashing to Earth subsequently discovering a young girl, Maika, who has been marooned and is looking for her comrade so she can contact the mothership and get a ride home. 

“Even fishes need friends” Hung’s friend had told him on leaving her fish with him so it could be close to his, and that’s true enough for Hung himself now left largely alone and looking for both companionship and adventure. Besides bonding with Maika, he also has a frenemy in a boy who lives in the upscale apartments whose drone keeps chasing his remote control aeroplane. CuBeo is a somewhat awkward boy who just wants to be friends with Hung but admittedly has a funny way of showing it, largely because he has asthma and his overprotective family don’t let him out to play with the other kids so he’s incredibly bored and intensely lonely despite all the high tech toys he has at home. Like Hung, he also seems to have lost his mother and has a workaholic father who rarely visits having left him and his older brother Bin largely in the care of a live-in tutor. 

Eventually any sense of class conflict between the two boys disappears as they gradually become friends while bonding over their shared quest to help Maika get back to her family battling the gangster thugs and shady billionaire Nghia who seems to have bought up half the area for his special space project and intends to exploit Maika’s advanced scientific knowledge after having impounded her spaceship. Of course, Nghia and the local gang boss turn out to be little different, in it for personal gain rather than any real interest in the evolution of mankind, while the kids just want to protect their friends and the world in which they live. Making full use of their shared skills, Hung and Beo have immense fun crafting their own weapons, modifying NERF guns to shoot silly putty or slapping their enemies in the face with kimchi, determined to save Maika from Earthly greed. 

Through this transitory friendship, Hung begins to come to terms with the loss of his mother while repairing his relationship with his dad and preparing to move on in making friends with Miss Trang no longer seeing her as a threat to his mother’s memory in learning that she’ll always be in his heart as will Maika. Boasting some impressive effects visualising Maika’s various powers and alien technology, Ham Tran’s retro world building otherwise has a defiantly down to Earth sensibility contrasting the inherent warmth of Hung’s cluttered home and friendly neighbourhood with Beo’s obvious loneliness in the emptiness of his white box high rise flat. Child-friendly humour and a healthy dose of silliness add to the whimsical charm, yet the central messages of learning to live with grief and loss even at such a young age are sure to touch the hearts of children and adults alike. 


Maika: The Girl From Another Galaxy screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 23 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

On the Line (보이스, Kim Gok & Kim Sun, 2021)

“Voice phishing is all about empathy” according to the sociopathic villain at the centre of Kim Gok & Kim Sun’s crime thriller On the Line (보이스, Voice), ironically hinting at his heartless greed leveraging as he admits people’s fear and hope against them and actively revelling in their misery. The Korean title, Voice, hints at the nebulous quality of the scam that in the end a reassuring voice is all people fall for but at the same time there is indeed a lot on the line not least for the embattled hero fighting back against the corruptions of contemporary capitalism.

Former policeman Seo-joon (Byun Yo-han) is currently working a job in construction after being forced out of the police when one of his investigations implicated the son of a prominent person. Finally starting to get back on his feet, he’s offered a big promotion by his supportive boss and is about to buy a house with his wife Miyeon (Won Jin-A) but then everything starts to go wrong. A potential accident threatens Seo-joon’s new sense of success while unbeknownst to him, Miyeon is currently on the phone with a man claiming to be a lawyer friend of his who tells her that he’s been arrested because of a fatality on site but if she sends the lawyer money for a “settlement” Seo-joon will be released with no further consequences. Unable to get in touch with her husband and fooled by number spoofing when she tries to call the site, Miyeon takes out the money intended to pay the deposit on the house and hands it over only realising her mistake when the scammers turn off the jammers they’d hidden at the construction site and Seo-joon rings her back to find out what’s wrong. So shocked is she that gets hit by a car and is in hospital in a coma when Seo-joon learns that his boss got scammed too and has taken his own life in shame in having lost so much money meant for his employees. 

As the open intertitles relate, voice phishing telephone fraud is a rising problem which aside from landing its victims in inescapable debt can ruin lives and relationships not to mention cause intense feelings of humiliation which lead those affected to consider harming themselves. Using vast data sets often fraudulently obtained, the scammers are able to perfectly profile their victims who as the villainous Gwak (Kim Mu-yeol) points out are already living in the “hell” of the contemporary society amid employment and financial crises that leave them feeling desperate enough for help that they don’t ask too many questions of a friendly voice on the phone. The workers at the vast call centre in China operated by gangster Cheon (Park Myung-hoon) are all Korean and many of them pressed by debts some of them even scam victims themselves so damaged by the internecine assault of contemporary capitalism as to have given in and agreed to ruin others just as they have already been ruined.

Seo-joon’s primary goal is to get his money back with a little revenge on the side as he takes the police to task and then leads them by the nose to the gang’s base in China, all that time in construction standing him in good stead as he climbs through lift shafts and ventilation ducts trying to expose the scammers and bring them to justice. The police force is first seen to be hamstrung by the high-tech nature of the case while their hands are tied because the gang is operating out of a foreign sovereign nation but are then kicked into gear by super cop Seo-joon who ironically can act with less restraint for no longer being an official law enforcement officer. 

Even so, it becomes clear this kind of crime isn’t going away even if this particular gang is taken down because the most valuable commodity in the world of today is personal data and there’s more and more of that available with every passing second. There is indeed a lot on the line not least the nature of the contemporary society dragged ever further into a spiralling race to the bottom, the effects of an exploitative social system from the abuse of migrant workers to the anxiety of high unemployment rates and poor working conditions simply more tools to be manipulated by scammers promising a helping hand with a reassuring voice on the phone telling you they have the solution to all your problems but this too involves a small fee, just a tiny investment in your future you’d be foolish not to make. A timely condemnation of the amoral venality of contemporary capitalism, Kim & Kim’s steely thriller sends its hero on a quest for justice both personal and societal while pursuing the duplicitous voices all the way to the end of the line. 


On the Line screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 22 & 25 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

San Diego Asian Film Festival Announces Lineup for 2022 Spring Showcase

The San Diego Asian Film Festival returns for its 11th Spring Showcase April 21 – 28 bringing some of the best in recent in East Asian and Asian American cinema to the city’s UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley. Highly anticipated Anita Mui biopic Anita will open the festival on April 21 while documentary Free Chol Soo Lee will bring the event to a close April 28. The Sunday Spotlight meanwhile is dedicated to actress/director Kinuyo Takana showcasing new 4K restorations of four of her six directorial features.

Anita

Longman Leung’s highly anticipated biopic of iconic Cantopop superstar and revered Hong Kong actress Anita Mui who sadly passed away after battling cervical cancer at the young age 40 in 2003.

Free Chol Soo Lee

Documentary focusing on the case of Chol Soo Lee who was falsely convicted of the murder of a Chinese gangster in 1973.

After the Rain (Director: Jian Fan, China, 104 min, 2021)

Documentary following two families who participated in a government scheme to help them have another child after losing their daughters in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Big Night! (Director: Jun Robles Lana, Philippines, 105 min, 2021)

Ironic dramedy set in the slums of Duterte’s Philippines in which a gay beautician’s life is turned upside-down when he discovers his name has been added to a “watch list” for suspected drug users.

Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (Director: Ayumu Watanabe, Japan, 96 min, 2021)

Heartwarming animation adapted from the novel by Kanako Nishi in which a teenage girl comes to accept her larger than life mother while learning a few things about herself. Review.

Maika The Girl From Another Galaxy (Director: Ham Tran, Vietnam, 105 min, 2022)

Fantastical family film from Vietnam in which a little boy who has recently lost his mother strikes up a strange friendship with a little girl from another world and takes on an evil billionaire with the help of his superrich frenemy to make sure she gets back to her people.

Nothing Serious (Director: Jeong Ga-young, South Korea, 95 min, 2021)

The first commercial feature from Jeong Ga-young (Bitch on the Beach Hit the Night, Heart), loses none of her caustic wit in a cynical yet ultimately heartwarming romantic comedy as a nerdy writer bonds with a sexually liberated yet emotionally heartbroken podcaster while preparing material for a sex column he didn’t want to write.

On The Line (Director: Kim Sun, Kim Gok, South Korea, 109 min, 2021)

Action thriller in which a former policeman turned construction worker gets back on the case when his wife and boss find themselves falling victim to complex telephone fraud.

Quickening (Director: Haya Waseem, Canada, 89 min, 2021)

A young dancer is consumed with internal conflict after falling for a fellow student in Haya Waseem’s indie drama.

Yuni (Director: Kamila Andini, Indonesia, Singapore, France, Australia, 95 min, 2021)

A young woman wanting to continue in education stuns her small conservative town by turning down a handsome suitor and thereafter finds herself in a series of impossible situations in Kamila Andini’s heartrending exploration of the lives of contemporary Indonesian women. Review.

Mystery Kung-Fu Theater 

Directed by Kinuyo Tanaka

This edition’s Sunday Spotlight shines on legendary golden age actress Kinuyo Tanaka who later became the first woman to have a career as a film director in Japan releasing six features between 1953 and 1962. The series will present four of her films in their new 4K restorations:

This year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase runs April 21 to 28 at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley. Full details for all the films as well as ticketing links and screening information can be found on the official website where tickets and passes are already on sale. You can also keep up with all the latest news by following SDAFF on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Clytaemnestra (Ougie Pak, 2021)

Art and life begin to blur for an indie theatre troupe rehearsing a Greek tragedy in Ougie Pak’s meta take on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon tellingly retitled Clytaemnestra. Filmed at speed during an acting workshop in Greece, Pak’s indie drama is part exploration of a hothouse backstage environment and part meditation on power dynamics which are, the film seems to suggest, more or less unchanged in the intervening 2500 years since the play was first performed. 

Successful actress Hye Bin (Kim Haru) has taken time out from her busy schedule to work with a famous director on the production of an ancient Greek play to be staged at the Theatre of Dionysus itself. The mostly female cast, the only male actor on hand to play the part of Agamemnon, will all stay together in a large rental house throughout the rehearsal process which aside from anything else is an extremely claustrophobic environment. The director (Kim Jongman), meanwhile, seems to be of the break them down school but isn’t so fussed on building them back up. Behaving more like an authoritarian school teacher than a creative collaborator, he operates through shame and humiliation. Showing the cast a video of traditional production, he attempts to workshop through asking each of them for their immediate takeaways on having just seen the play performed but treats each of the answers with condescension instantly shutting down one young actress’ assertion that she saw “Han” in Aeschylus’ script as if directly preventing her from finding common ground between her own culture and a Greek play from thousands of years ago. 

For one reason or another, Hye Bin becomes a particular target for his disdain. When he brings in another actress fresh from Seoul, Ian (Kim Taehee) who arrives with her own assistant, the tensions only rise. Perhaps spotting her rival, Ian encourages the low level bullying of Hye Bin while she becomes irritated and confused on noticing the inappropriate intimacy between the actress and her director. The other members of cast meanwhile find themselves conflicted, often bullied themselves into going along with Ian and the director seemingly too panicked to resist as male actor Jung Hwan (Kim Junghwan) later claims not quite apologising for not having stood up for Hye Bin but apparently embarrassed to have been bamboozled into saying something he didn’t really think was true. 

In the ongoing meta drama, the director is an Agamemnon behaving like a tyrannical king bullying his actors in order, he claims, to get the performances he wants. Attacked by Ian, both verbally and physically, Hye Bin accuses her of using her sexuality to improve her career prospects and thereby indirectly the director of abusing his position to take advantage of potentially vulnerable actresses, provoking a hugely inappropriate confrontation which leads only to threats, violence, and eventual exile. We already know how this play ends, though the director is perhaps so secure in his status, his patriarchal authority, and the “respect” he inspires as a renowned practitioner that it doesn’t occur to him he will have to answer for his behaviour even as he threatens to have Hye Bin blacklisted ensuring she’ll never work in this town or any other ever again and all for the crime of some harsh but true words along with an insistence on maintaining her self-respect through gaining a mutual apology. 

“As soon as we see ego we stop seeing the story” the director barks, denying Hye Bin even her personhood in demanding she disappear into the role in which he casts her. Hye Bin meanwhile has begun having ominous visions perhaps linked to the fluidity of her personae, caught between the mad prophetess and the murderous wife, or else the intensity of the rehearsal process with its myriad petty humiliations. Set mainly within the liminal space of the rented villa where the cast drink Greek beer and are forced to “express themselves” with “feedback” offered in the form of self criticism, Pak’s claustrophobic if occasionally ethereal drama is, as Hye Bin puts it in her original verdict, to some a tale of “justice” as much as “vengeance”, the takedown of a tyrant whose dismissive snarling of the word “feminism” in Hye Bin’s reading of the play may have told us all about him that we needed to know. 


Clytaemnestra screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Kim Min-young of the Report Card (성적표의 김민영, Lee Jae-eun & Lim Ji-sun, 2021)

Does surviving in the modern society necessarily mean sacrificing your essential self? The eponymous Kim Min-young of the Report Card (성적표의 김민영, Seongjeongpyoui Kim Min-young) says she wants to transfer from her regional uni to one in Seoul because her classmates are “too Korean” and she finds them tedious, but is simultaneously mean to and dismissive of the film’s heroine, Junghee (Kim Ju-a), who has defiantly decided to follow her own path rather than the one society lays in front of her. 

As the film opens, Junghee is one of three members of the “acrostic poetry club” along with her high school roommate Min-young (Yoon Seo-young), and a girl from down the hall Sanna (Son Da-hyun). Sadly, they’ve decided to wind the club up because they’re only 100 days out from the college entrance exams and need the extra time to study. We never find out exactly how well Junghee fared or whether her decision to lend her watch to an anxious boy (who does not pass) affected her grade, but in any case she does not attend university deciding instead to look for work while Min-young leaves to study nursing in Daegu. 

The third girl, Sanna, as we later discover did the best of the three and went all the way to Harvard. The trio had vowed to carry on the poetry club via Skype, Sanna making time for her friends even though the time difference makes it inconvenient while Min-young seemingly can’t be bothered to turn up. Nor can she really take time out for Junghee’s calls, her friend a little put out to hear loud party music in the background while trying to share important news. Even so, she’s delighted when Min-young suddenly invites her to visit her staying at her brother’s vacant apartment in Seoul during the summer holidays especially as she’d just been let go from the random job she’d managed to get manning the desk at a moribund tennis club. 

It’s in the Seoul apartment, a messy and chaotic place, that the differences between the two formerly close friends come to the surface. Despite having expressly invited her friend to come, Min-young isn’t really interested hanging out and is in the middle of some kind of crisis obsessing over a single bad grade on her end of term report card. Together they try to formulate a letter of complaint to the professor, Junghee doing her best to be supportive while privately wondering if Min-young isn’t being a little childish and that if she wanted a better grade she should have studied harder. Meanwhile, Min-young runs down all of Junghee’s life choices, constantly telling her she needs to be “realistic” and that she probably won’t get anywhere with her artwork in terms of financial viability. 

Junghee is visibly hurt by Min-young’s superior attitude, but in the interests of having a pleasant day chooses to let it go even while Min-young continues to ignore her. Even so the difference between them is perhaps at the heart of Min-young’s ironic “too Korean” comment about her new uni friends, criticising them for the conventionality to which she too aspires, singing the praises of Seoul but most particularly for its three floor claw game emporiums. A quick look at Min-young’s diary when she abruptly takes off leaving Junghee alone in the apartment reveals that in actuality she envies Junghee for her boundless imagination and willingness to be her true self rather than blindly trying to fit in while finding herself out of place among her new friends. Her opening poem hinted at low self-esteem and an insecurity about the future that perhaps leaves her a little self-involved, projecting her anxieties onto Junghee who is eventually forced to defend herself by pointing out that she has her own reality which is important to her no matter what those like Min-young may have to say about it. 

In the kindest of ways and with true generosity of spirit, Junghee writes the report card of the title praising her friend for her better qualities while pointing out her faults as supportively as she can. Giving her an “F” for “Koreanness” she advises her that she’s the one who is suffering because she worries too much about what other people think, searching for conventional “stability” rather than embracing her true self and ought to become “less Korean” in order to ease some of her anxiety. Offering a mild critique of a socially oppressive culture, Lee & Lim’s quirky drama with its random asides and flights of fancy makes a case for the right to dream positing the quiet yet free spirited Junghee as the more mature of the two women having embraced her true self and decided to follow her own path while being kind to those still trying to find their way. 


Kim Min-young of the Report Card screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Introduction (인트로덕션, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)

A young man struggles to define himself in the shadow of parental expectation in a minor departure from Hong Sang-soo, somehow warmhearted even its icy exteriors and wilful melancholia. As the title perhaps implies, the hero of Introduction (인트로덕션) finds himself in the midst of his life’s prologue while receiving sometimes unwelcome “introductions” from each of his parental figures including one to a prominent but ultimately pompous actor (Ki Joo-bong) apparently a family friend to his divorced parents though adopting only the unsympathetic authoritarianism of the traditional father rather than the empathy the young man seems to seek. 

Divided into three loose episodes in the life of Youngho (Shin Seokho), Hong’s tripartite tale opens with an almost comic scene of a middle-aged acupuncturist (Kim Young-ho) bargaining with God promising to become a better person if only He helps him get out of some kind of fix. This moment of crisis might be why he’s suddenly asked Youngho, his son with whom he seems to be semi-estranged, to visit him though in a repeated motif we never find out quite what it is he wanted to say because in this case an old friend and famous actor suddenly turns up. Youngho is kept waiting in the waiting room while his girlfriend ironically waits for him at another location. Meanwhile he’s fussed over by his father’s doting receptionist who gives him the sense of familial comfort he lacks with either his mother or father. Suddenly he hugs her, a moment bringing new import to his later argument with the actor in which he rejects the inauthenticity of acting claiming that when he embraces someone it ought to mean something because it would be “morally wrong” to fake that kind of connection. 

The old actor, however, assumes his discomfort is some kind of young person’s puritanism sure that it doesn’t matter if it’s just “acting” or playing around, when a man embraces a woman it’s all “love”. Youngho implies his decision to abandon acting because of its essential inauthenticity is partly romantic jealously on the part of his girlfriend, yet in reality we realise that he is no longer with the woman who waited for him outside the acupuncturist, Juwon (Park Miso), despite having made an impulsive and possibly ill-advised decision to follow her to Berlin after she left to study abroad. Just as Youngho has a series of unsatisfactory “introductions” from mum and dad, Juwon struggles to assert herself in the company of her mother (Seo Young-hwa) despite having travelled to another country where she will it seems be staying with her mother’s close friend (Kim Min-hee). Juwon’s mother fears her friend has changed with age, now in someway younger, immediately asking Juwon to drop the honorifics that instantly divide them as members of different generations while apparently having abandoned conventionality by divorcing to become a bohemian artist. 

During their brief meeting, Youngho also remarks that he thinks his father has “changed” while musing on the idea of asking him for money to come to Berlin as a foreign student to be with Juwon, unwittingly trampling on this small step of freedom Juwon has been able to take away from her mother if only towards an aunt. Hong structures each of his sequences around groups of three people that begin and end with two, the last somehow awkward in its evenness as Youngho invites a male friend (Ha Seong-guk) to dine with his mother (Cho Yoon-hee) and the actor, perhaps sensing that he may need some kind of moral support. He is always, in one sense or another, left out in the cold not quite alone but in his own way lonely, hugging the receptionist but only gazing up at his mother on her hotel balcony literally unreachable in their unbridgeable emotional distance. He waits for her to wave, but she does not. On the beach on an overcast afternoon and not quite alone except perhaps in spirit, Youngho begins to realise that he’ll have to make his own introduction, his parents can’t help him even if they wanted to because they are are also a little lost, confused, and filled with anxiety. “Don’t worry too much” Youngho tells a similarly troubled soul in what turns out to be a dream, but it’s advice he might as well be giving himself looking out over a boundless ocean in contemplation of his life still to come. 


Introduction screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Days Before the Millennium (徘徊年代, Chang Teng-Yuan, 2021)

Perhaps deceptively titled, Chang Teng-Yuan’s bifurcated epic traverses the millennial divide in the company of two Vietnamese women each with very different stories but eventually agreeing “your generation or mine things were not easy for us” as they share their stories of migration amid the changing fortunes of Taiwan-Vietnam relations. Beginning in the mid-90s, Days Before the Millennium (徘徊年代, Páihuái Niándài) finds a mail order bride dreaming of a better life on an “island of riches” but soon finding herself trapped by an overbearing mother-in-law and violent husband, while another woman two decades later arrives happily married for love and well educated but often frustrated in her attempts to help those like herself struggling to adapt to a changing society. 

As Tue (Annie Nguyen) puts it, she exchanged her youth for a future of hope in Taiwan escaping a childhood of war for a more peaceful existence abroad. At the time she arrives, however, Taiwan is not so peaceful as relations with Mainland China continue to decline with many fearing military escalation. Meanwhile, the “mysterious man” to whom she was to be married, is a sullen construction worker filled with a sense of impossibility. Ming (Chiang Chang-Hui) patiently lays one brick on top of another attempting to build his home but finds himself under the watchful eyes of a couple of “surveyors” with eyes on his land. Alone in their van, the two men often debate the modern society the one decrying increasing globalisation while looking down on women like Tue complaining that half the town is now Vietnamese, “polluted”, as if they think they’re losing something even as they attempt to snatch Ming’s land out from under him to build, one assumes, some of the half-completed apartment blocks “private investigator” Lan (Nguyen Thu Hang) drives past 20 years later. 

Tue’s attempts to reclaim some of her agency through opening a small business selling street food only further irritate the already frustrated Ming whose internalised rage eventually turns violent while his mother (Chen Shu-fang) looks on saying nothing, later berating Tue for not having fulfilled the role for which she was desired pointing suggestively at an empty crib which seems to have been in the corner ever since she came. It’s at this point that her marginalisation intersects with that of women born on the island as her Vietnamese friend attempts to get her help by talking to the local police in the light of new legislation recently passed against domestic violence. Though the officer is sympathetic he can do little for her seeing as she has no material evidence while Tue blames herself and is otherwise trapped knowing that leaving her husband before completing her period of residency means potential deportation. Later doing just that she finds solidarity first at a buddhist temple and then a woman’s refuge, but even that is later disrupted by natural disaster.  

Tue’s story becomes a source of inspiration 20 years later for recent immigrant Lan, Chang transitioning to the post-millennial city during a storm which seems to narrow the screen now in a boxy 4:3 rather than the strangely oppressive widescreen with which the film opened. Unlike Tue, Lan has a degree in Chinese and an extensive resume having apparently met and married her Taiwanese husband in Vietnam. She applied for a position at a detective agency, the same agency which once offered to “help” Tue “fight for her rights” but didn’t really want to rent her an apartment, because she wants to help other women like herself in inter-cultural marriages find better solutions to domestic friction but finds her goals at odds with those of her capitalistic boss. Perhaps for these reasons, her first job does not go to plan as she accompanies a Vietnamese mail order bride on a mission to spy on the husband she suspects of having an affair, failing to stop her confronting him after discovering that he is a closeted homosexual who married her to please his parents but now feels guilty and conflicted in his treatment of her. 

This is of course another marginalisation, but one that Lan is ill-equipped to process while the woman she hoped to help is, as Tue once was, faced only with her broken dreams for better life in Taiwan. The Vietnamese news remarks on Taiwan’s geopolitical positioning as a delegation is awkwardly asked to leave an international conference because of Mainland pressure, while it also seems that a Taiwanese factory is responsible for a toxic waste spill that has damaged local fishing stocks and caused widespread illness in Vietnam. When Lan and Tue eventually meet they talk of the changing fortunes of their nations, Lan explaining that the port town where she’s from is now a bustling big city, the Vietnamese economy now much improved while Taiwan’s is falling behind. 20 years between them their fortunes are entirely different, even so they each agree things have not always been easy if differing ways. Nevertheless, their mutual sense of solidarity and desire to improve the circumstances of those like them offers a ray of hope in what might otherwise seem a difficult and hopeless future, Chang’s sometimes experimental, etherial tale of historical echoes and awkward symmetry finally allowing each of its heroines the sense of the better future of which they once dreamed. 


Days Before the Millennium screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (dialogue free)